Fiction • Dorthe Nors
Translated by Martin Aitken
She had once been advised to listen well to what a man said just when he began to sense a woman was showing interest in him. For reasons unknown, most men at that very time gave off important information about their true nature. This was what she had been told, and she had known men herself who, in the middle of intimate conversation on a very different subject altogether, could say:
“You should know I’m no easy man to live with.”
Or: “I can be such an asshole at times.”
Mostly, she had considered this to be self-disparagement, if not a form of politeness, and if she did not take it seriously it was because she had not understood that a person could be in possession of disturbing knowledge about himself and still have no wish to change. For that reason, and because she lived for the idea that everything had some deeper motive, she never believed what these men said about themselves. It was hard for her to acknowledge that their words really were intended to be warnings and that her lack of sympathy would end up costing her dearly, but she went so far as to agree with them when afterwards they said:
“It wasn’t like you didn’t know or anything. I told it like it was.”
And indeed they had, yet still the problem recurred with the next one, and the next one again, and every time the man sensed she was about to make herself vulnerable to him, he told her something disturbing about himself. Annelise would smile then and say:
“Oh, come off it, please.”
But they never did.
When she met Carl Erik Juhl, what made her fall for him, in effect, was his long list of disturbing traits. Working with children and their psychological problems and learning difficulties, she was used to meeting adults who were disinclined to acknowledge their own weaknesses, and in that respect Carl Erik’s frankness seemed redeeming. He had been called in for a briefing at the school on the subject of the sessions she had been conducting with his son, Kasper, who was in seventh grade, and almost at the very instant he stepped inside her office Carl Erik confessed that he had a temper, was something of a coward and a poor father to boot. Annelise pushed back her chair slightly so as to get a better look at him. And there he was. His face was round, his hair thin and curly. He looked out of the window behind her, and his smile was so sweet her heart turned somersaults.
What she wondered now was whom to blame for the wounds her relationship with Carl Erik Juhl had inflicted upon her. She turned her body in front of the mirror in the bedroom and lifted her right arm on which was a bruise. It was quite unacceptable of him, yet at the same time her not listening to what he had told her was a source of suspicion. Not one of the traits he had ascribed to himself that day in her office had he failed to demonstrate in practice.
She sat down at an angle on the edge of the bed and wrinkled her brow. There had to be a motive, and one had first to look to oneself to find the error. Her upbringing had been decent enough, though one time when she was about ten and had fallen off her bike and ended up in the hospital, her father had not even come to visit. Not caring for the smell of hospitals, he had stayed home instead. It was by no means unlikely that some encoding of basic insignificance and a tendency to neglect one’s own needs had taken place then and left its mark. Or perhaps it was her relationship with her brother, Arne. Arne had been good at sports and wouldn’t bother playing with her unless she was able to take the ball from him at soccer. Their mother had always been so quiet, too, and yet to no avail, Annelise thought to herself and pulled the comforter up over her shoulders. Judging from the children she treated, not many escaped a beating of one sort or another. But that didn’t necessarily turn them into thugs, masochists, and murderers. There had to be more basic psychological traits, perhaps even within the psychology of gender, that could account for her behavior. Carl Erik’s too, for that matter. He was always falling short, and she could never make an issue big enough. It was no good.
Annelise gazed down in perplexity at her right hand, and as she did so she thought about how, when they had started going out together, Carl Erik had liked her when she was drunk. He wanted her with him out on the town and encouraged her to be sensual.
“There’s no one in here you couldn’t have,” he’d say, looking proudly around the bar.
On occasion he had picked out some poor guy, preferably with a slight handicap if anyone like that was around, and when Annelise came back from the bathroom he would bundle her onto a bar stool next to the victim and whisper:
“This one’s down on his luck. Show him a good time, it’ll cheer him up.”
She would then dance with this other man, perhaps, or allow him to buy her a beer. She had thought of it as a kind of compliment on Carl Erik’s part. Now she found it obvious that it had all been about something else altogether. There must be a hundred ways of rolling out the red carpet in front of an ailing store, Annelise thought. Giving a woman away to a cripple is only one of them.
But she had known many men like that. Many men like those reptiles in the zoo that could puff up their faces with fanciful color and raise themselves up onto thin toes and rattle. Every woman in the world would meet one sooner or later. It was all part and parcel. But she was no good at not loving them, even if there were no obvious reason to do so.
She looked into the mirror again and let the comforter slip down her shoulders. She saw how her breasts and hair hung limply from her body. She saw a red mark beneath her collarbone, and maybe the problem was at root sexual. Maybe she just didn’t understand how to deal with male sexuality. As a child, Arne had kept porn magazines under his mattress. Sometimes when he had been out at soccer practice she had lifted the mattress and flicked through them. As she gazed at the glitzy images, feeling a tingle inside, she thought a woman would have to love a man very much to put that thing into her mouth, and she thought too that the man would have to love it very much to want to put it inside the woman’s mouth. She found the anal business odd. There was something anatomical about it she still had not fully understood. In her view it was about little more than the instrumental power of the male organ. Because it could be inserted into openings, it had to be inserted into openings. In the town she was from was a man who went round sticking his thing through gaps in fences and the wire baskets on bicycles. Instrumental power, she thought to herself. Technical pleasure ought never to be underestimated as an element of male sexuality, and it wasn’t that she disliked sex, it just wasn’t all kinds of sex she liked, and she could still feel Carl Erik inside her.
Now he lay naked under the comforter and they would never go to bed together again. Never, for now she hurt all over and was unable to see what she had done wrong. But what had happened was that Carl Erik’s son Kasper had been staying with him that weekend. Things had not gone well, she sensed when Carl Erik had come round just before dinner. Kasper had said something about the sessions Annelise had been having with him, but first she and Carl Erik had eaten dinner and shared a bottle of wine, and then they had fucked, drunk more wine, and then taken a shower, and it was all fine until she made to dry Carl Erik’s back. It was then he had become annoyed about her having to touch everything and not leave things alone, but always be poking and meddling and sticking her nose into the slightest thing. It was as though she were never satisfied with the knowledge she had, he yelled at her, and the last thing she remembered before he blew up on her was the sentence All that crap you’ve been telling Kasper, for instance. And at that point she had asked for the crap to be expounded upon, which was what then happened in the hallway, the living room, the kitchen, and the bedroom.
She was perfectly willing to admit that she had lost confidence in her choices. She kept on mostly because she was scared of giving up on her urge to be happy and simply contenting herself with peace and quiet. Sitting there on the edge of the bed, she considered that she had most likely seen her worst and her best now. She had been down on all fours, on the edge of her nerves, naked and bound and temporarily insane at the time of the crimes.
She climbed gingerly back into bed. There was Carl Erik, unconcerned by her still being awake. His hand was next to her face, clutching at a corner of the comforter. It looked gentle lying there. A little red across the knuckles, but there was nothing wrong with its outline, especially not if Annelise put her eyes slightly out of focus. She considered its shape and thought about the lines; everything you wanted to see but which in actual fact was not there. Everything that should have been but which never became, and this was important to understand. Not only in respect to herself. It was something she could put to use with the children at school. She recalled that as a child herself she had been heavily seduced by the black line drawings in coloring books. They were done so well she always wanted to fill in the empty spaces with crayon and felt-tip. Behind that burning desire to color in the drawings lay the creative human’s longing to give life, and, not least: to make the drawings her own. In a way, it was like stealing preconceived ideas. The drawing could never be lifelike, and for that reason you reached a point where you began to draw outside the lines.
She had observed that children only seldom showed the colored-in drawings in their coloring books to their parents or other adults. Presumably because they were such poor indicators of the child’s creative abilities and demonstrated all too clearly their less flattering traits: laziness and lack of pluck to really get below the surface of things.
Annelise’s gaze fell once more upon Carl Erik. One of his kind—a man—was part of the idea preconceived for women. More than that, any individual you happened to meet was nothing but a potential, an outline to be colored in and assigned content. She had read about it in respect to young girls and their propensity to overfunction—the need to change, control, expound upon. But you can’t do that, and eventually you pick up the felt-tip with the most in it and color everything in. Maybe that was why he hit her? Maybe her bruises were just a way of coloring outside the lines? Maybe the reason he turned her onto her stomach, pressed her into the mattress, and fucked her from behind as she sobbed and felt her legs grow heavy was to make her real and living by being sloppy, and seen from the opposite viewpoint what she did afterward while he was asleep was the same, outside the lines, outside them all, even if the result as it lay there in a mess of blood and comforter seemed to be anything else but alive.
Dorthe Nors is the author of five books in her native Denmark, including the story collection Karate Chop, for which she received the 2014 Per Olov Enquist Literary Prize. She lives in Jutland.
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